Monday, 4 April 2011

A Note on Mumsnet.

I have to confess that it took me until the sixth month of my pregnancy to actually sign up to Mumsnet. The parenting website, which has spawned a host of imitations has a reputation for being frequented entirely by -as the excellent Toby Young put it- by “Laptop wielding harpies”. If you imagine the lovechild of Mary Whitehouse and Arthur Scargill, going on a date with an anti coalition cuts protestor to the Ritz Restaurant, you might get close to the terrifying, million headed hydra that is Mumsnet. When I finally did sign up, I went straight to the “Ante-natal” section, and tentatively joined in a thread of women all expecting babies in the same month as me. This safe environment was actually exactly what I was looking for, presenting a broad spectrum of women who’s gestational period was the only real thing we had in common. I still try and speak to these ladies every day. More on them later.

As I grew braver, I began to poke my nose around the rest of the site, and pretty soon wished I had stayed within the cosy confines of my usual thread. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mumsnet ladies are vicious. There is one board in particular which I would no longer approach unless I were feeling particularly strong of stomach. Called “Am I Being Unreasonable?” it is a forum designed for women to post those tricky questions which one would usually put to one’s close circle of friends. A few examples from today include:

“To not put bells on my cats?” (Sample answer: “I get really pissed off with my neighbours vile shit machines killing birds in my garden. I throw bits of gravel at them. You are being unreasonable. Keep the bloody things in, they are a menace”) and
“To buy an IPAD even though DH [Darling Husband] says no?” (Answer: “I wouldn’t buy it for work purposes. If I came across someone using one in a work situation I'd think they were a [bit] of a twit”)

These are two light hearted examples, I didn’t want to make fun of any of the genuine cries for help that are posted in equal measure to the everyday niggles. Some women go on to ask for advice about abusive Inlaws/ husbands/ work colleagues, some ask really distraught parenting questions, and sometimes genuinely supportive advice is given. Most of the time, however, the responses are cruel, spiteful and insulting. It’s called being “flamed” and smacks of the very nastiest schoolgirl bullying, as though somehow, behind the secure anonymity of a computer, women feel free to flex their most arrogant and judgemental muscles. On the few occasions that I’ve entered into the fray, I felt as though I were 11 years old, back at school and hiding in the toilets from the popular girls. 

 The hottest topic, however, is that of Breastfeeding. Oh. My. Gosh. I would never, ever, venture into one of the conversations on breastfeeding. If Mumsnet ruled the world, women’s nipples would be gaffer taped into their babies' mouths at birth and left there for, at the very least, the first six months. Suggesting that you might prefer to feed your baby formula is received with the same reaction you might expect, had you casually mentioned that darling Anemone was rather partial to a shot of gin in her bedtime bottle.
 I have observed that what you put into your children seems to carry greater weight that what you actually do with them. As though to return to work when they’re three months old is perfectly acceptable, nay laudable, as long as they're breastfed. To devote every waking second to them, then give them non organic baby food , however, should carry the death penalty.

A healthy dose of class snobbery runs through the site. I recall a thread in which a mother had linked to a thread on another parenting forum (Bounty) on which mothers were talking about early weaning. I should point out at this point that the government advises weaning a baby at six months, and any earlier than 4 months has been advised against since the 1950s. The posts on the Bounty forum were badly written, along the lines of “BABE, U NO UR OWN BABIE” and the women posting were obviously ignorant of a) the standard incessant feeding of a small baby and b) the dangers of early weaning, but rather than post a response trying to issue gentle guidance in the right direction, the conversation was seized upon with a bloodthirsty glee by the Mumsnet “Booby gang” and the women were widely declared unfit for motherhood and the human race in general.

It becomes clear after a very short while that the average Mumsnetter is an educated, comfortably off middle class woman, which is all very good.; the country needs well educated, comfortably off parents. However, it only serves to highlight the ever increasing chasm between the middle and working classes. Nary the twain shall meet, it seems, lest the pool of smug moral superiority be sullied by someone who doesn’t have the benefit of a £200 NCT training course.

Alright, I confess, I am tarring everyone with the same brush, which is unfair. There are a great many wonderful women on Mumsnet, however as yet, I have yet to come across a single one with my extremely traditional values, which, given the millions of members, I find slightly startling. Traditional conservatism is also highly unpopular. A recent web chat with Nigel Farrage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party was almost immediately flooded with women banding about utterly fatuous misconceptions about the party’s policies, throwing out casual insults or simply posting blank messages, in an attempt to fill the thread’s 1000 post capacity before Mr Farrage arrived to talk. Very immature. Whether you support a party or not, I believe in giving each an equal platform before judging them, unfortunately, our friends on Mumsnet appear to have succumbed to moralhighgrounditis, and therefore anything which does not fall under the list of approved subjects is dismissed out of hand.

Things of which Mumsnet approves:

-Ella’s Kitchen Organic babyfood pouches
-Baby led weaning
-Working mothers
-Aggressive feminism
-Bugaboo pushchairs
-NCT antenatal courses.

Things of which Mumsnet does not approve

- Formula milk before 6 months
-The Liberal Democrat party (not since they entered into the coalition. Before that, Nick Clegg was the number one Mumsnet crush)

-Gina Ford

Before you all have me pegged as a dismissive, judgemental mumsnetophobe, I’ll go back to the group of ladies I mentioned earlier. We’ve been talking regularly now for well over a year- a core group of about 15, with others who drift in and out and there have been times when I would have been genuinely lost without them. We all have different parenting styles and personalities and it would seem that when you really get to know a small group of Mumnetters, the usual stereotypes appear to fall away. I know that I can post almost any conundrum to these ladies and be sure of a supportive, honest, caring response. I call them my Cave Ladies.
The reason for this strange moniker came out of a conversation I had with The Director, about six months ago. Men being a solitary species, he didn’t understand why women need to gossip and confer on almost all aspects of their daily lives and the only way I could think of to explain it was with the analogy of cavemen: All the cavemen would go out to hunt mammoth and so on -we’ve seen that in cave paintings- but while the men were out chasing dinner with a big stick, the women were left behind in the cave, keeping the fires burning and looking after the babies, gossiping and advising each other. It’s only really since the 1960s, when women going out to work became the norm, that this daily network of women has dwindled. I think the success of Mumnet lies in the fact that it taps into a fundamental need in women, particularly mothers, for community. The international sisterhood isn’t a concept devised by feminists, but rather something running through the line of women into obscurity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of the housewife, and thus the community of mothers, daughters, neighbours and friends runs alongside the rise in Postnatal Depression.

Which posts a tricky question: If Mumsnet taps into the underlying need of women for solidarity and sisterhood, why are we so bloody horrible to each other?

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